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The Secret History of New Jersey by Tony Gruenewald | Word Riot

November 15, 2009      

The Secret History of New Jersey by Tony Gruenewald

Review by John J. Petrolino III

Tony Gruenewald’s The Secret History of New Jersey is a wonderful collection of satirical, reflexive, quasi-political, lyrical and humorous poems.  Gruenewald’s Secret History is broken up into to chapters or “exits” as he describes them (throughout the collection Gruenewald constantly refers to transportation, the road and to highway systems themselves).  The first, “Exit 1-The Secret History of New Jersey” contains many poems of reflection and of the past.  “Exit 2-New York City, Boca Raton, Bluefield, W.Va., Afghanistan” is loaded with more of Gruenewald’s observations and opinions.  Though, both parts are filled equally with his astute and cynical observation of the world around him.

Many of Gruenewald’s poems are full of lyrical aspects loaded with alliterations.  Better than reading his work is listening to him read it.  I had the pleasure to hear him read “Grand Finale” (the first poem in his book) at a reading and he sets a wonderful pace with his word selection “…Bombs and M-80’s/buzzed back yards” and “chased by barrages of bottle rockets.”  In his piece “Ford Motor Company Edison Assembly Plant, 1948-2004” he loads the page with sweet sounding alliterations “Suburbs sprouted/from surrounding fields/feeding it the sweat and muscle…”

Besides the lyrical aspects with his use of alliteration (consonance and assonance as well), making the poems pleasant to the ear/inner voice Gruenewald’s work is significant and he adds depth and shade with the use of symbolism and literary reference.  In his poem “A Study of the Social Order of Automobiles” Gruenewald juxtaposes several ideas and ideologies serving up a deep and multi faceted poem.  In it he starts “When your Subaru left the inspection station/like Hester Prynne,/its scarlet sticker conspicuous,/the other cars did not shun it,”.  Gruenewald, like Miller uses Puritanical New England as a pulpit to bring to light modern conflict in his referencing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  In the poem he continues “it was their drivers whose eyes/were either averted/or overflown with disdain.”  Gruenewald paints a picture of a society full of ‘all accepting motor vehicles’ versus ‘all judging drivers.’  “A Study of the Social Order of Automobiles” is full of satire and show’s Gruenewald’s disgust towards the current and continuing ‘competing with the Joneses’ mentality of America which we have been living in since post WWII.

In “Route 1 Free Association (To the guy in the black Lincoln riding my bumper…) ” Gruenewald uses, as the title suggests, free association.  In this piece he raps on from Neal Cassady (stating in the first line “You’d think you were Neal Cassady” comparing the guy behind him riding his bumper to Cassady) to James Dean to Jazz music legends to the Blues to idealism (“of my grandfather’s ridiculously/green front lawn.”) and from the Blues to color association of traffic lights to tail lights and then back full circle when he states “you’re about to react/to my brake lights’/alarming red or/we’ll both be singing/some serious/blues.”  Gruenewald’s cunning use of these associative ideas perpetuates the same feelings of being in a car; driving fast, and then slowing down, signs and sights going by, taking it all in slowly or with velocity, constantly being bombarded by images and sounds (Just like jazz music).

Like in “A Study of the Social Order of Automobiles“, Gruenewald makes some serious and living social statements in “First Class (for Jerry Monastersky).”  In “First Class) Gruenewald brings up an account of his mother receiving a letter from his teacher after the first day of school “though expectations were low,/they’d teach enough to know//how to sign away my soul/to the used car and mortgage,//and to please remember that I’d been bred/to be fed to the factories….”  From reading The Secret History of New Jersey one can deduce that not only was Gruenewald not “bred/to be fed to the factories” that he has more than exceeded whatever low expectations his educators had for him.  This classification of students being outlined is an important statement which is more alive now than it was yesterday (the ‘no child left behind’ communism of education).

In several of Gruenewald’s pieces he makes religious references, not only referencing but satirizing commonly known Christian prayers/phrases.  In the title poem “The Secret History of New Jersey” Gruenewald delivers the piece as if it would read form the New Testament, making commandments such as “all turns,/even those to the left/should indeed begin/from the lane of right.”  He also has a poem with the witty title of “The Last Temptation of Cracker Jack Christ” which could be read several different ways.  In “Love, American Style” Gruenewald reminds readers of the phrase “In God We Trust” being scribed on American currency followed by the poignant (but true) statement “since His only Son/was crucified and died/on the dollar sign….”  Lastly, in “Junky” Gruenewald rolls through this poem starting with a Shaksperian satire “To decaf/or not to decaf/that/is the question…” and ending with “Our Father who art in/Columbia…” all dedicated to his (or Bernadette’s, whom the poem is dedicated to) love for coffee.

The Secret History of New Jersey is a witty and entertaining read for all pallets.  The road references and metaphors, in conjunction with his lyrical jazz-like stylings will usher the reader through to the end on a fast pace and a high note.  Gruenewald’s satires and observations (serious or otherwise) have a unique spin on them, which at minimum will result in a slight “heh” or have one rolling on the floor.  Hop on the freeway and learn all you can about The Secret History of New Jersey.

The Secret History of New Jersey (ISBN-13: 978-1-880764-25-1) published in 2009 by Northwind Publishing is available on and more information can be obtained from the publisher at PO Box 823, Red Bank, NJ 07701.  Be sure to visit Tony on the web at

Throughout this review I italicized and put in quotations the titles of poems to differentiate them from quotations of a piece.

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